Fishing for Disaster: Specialists say over harvesting threatens “Sevan Beauty”

With his black hat pulled down on his eyes, moving in one place to get a bit warmer, the man puts the fish from one place to another trying to convince the clients the “sig” he sells is the freshest and is the most reasonably priced.

The “Sevan Beauty” has risen in price by up to 400 percent in recent years (now costing about 50-75 cents in Yerevan), but still remains the most popular and an inexpensive fish.

“This is the meaning of our life,” says Tatos who brings sig several times a week from Noratus. “If it were not for the fish, the people in Sevan would perish.”

The fish seller next to the first one, a stout elderly man, takes out sig eggs with the help of a plate from a plastic box.

“There is nothing better than this,” he praises the quality of the caviar before the clients. “The more you use the better.”

Although catching fish is supposed to be prohibited in November and December when it is time for laying eggs, even then they are easily found in markets.

And such indiscriminate harvesting, scientists say, threatens the sig population and the population of those who rely on the fishing industry in Sevan.

Each year the Institute for Hydro-ecology and Ichthyology at the RA National Academy of Sciences surveys Lake Sevan to get information about sig reserves and population there.

In 2005 the survey conducted in cooperation with scientists from Russia revealed that the reserve of sig has dropped 17 times in the past 22 years. In the mid-80s there were an estimated 11,000 tons of sig; at present the figure is only 625 tons.

“This kind of situation is created as a result of over-fishing,” says the deputy director of the Institute for Hydro-ecology and Ichthyology at the RA National Academy of Sciences, ichthyologist Boris Gabrielyan. “Our institute undertakes surveys each year and sets the allowed amount of fishing.”

The Ministry for Environmental Protection says the amount of the caught fish corresponds to the allowed figures; but the results say something different.

The Ministry for Environmental Protection says it does its best to organize a fishing ban properly. Scientists argue that the implementation of a fishing ban should be in tandem with offering alternative jobs for the residents of the Sevan shore, along with high penalties for sellers of fish in markets and other places.

“What ban are you talking about?” a seller shrugs his shoulders. “Everything has its way to be solved.”

As a result of this kind of approach, beginning November, the high time for the fishing ban, the trade in the markets is in bloom and caviar is sold for 1500-2000 drams (about $3-4) per kilogram.

Environmentalists explain the uncontrollability of the fishing ban by the social hardships of people. The fish sellers also find justification.

“If they give people work we will not catch fish,” fish seller Gurgen asserts. “What can we do? Perish? If there is not fish, the households will be eliminated.”

But the scientists believe the social hardships will become even harder if sig is not allowed to spawn. In that case, after a while, the commercial fishing of sig will be impossible.

“There is only one generation of sig left in the lake instead of the several previous generations,” says Gabrielyan. “Sig is not allowed (by poachers) to spawn and increase in number.”

Gabrielyan says their institute has offered the Ministry of Environmental Protection to totally ban sig fishing this year in order to make the situation controllable to some extent.

In case of a prolonged ban, the specialists believe, the ecosystem will be restored in the lake.

Besides, while it is usually believed sig should spawn at about two years old, at present because of the depletion, the fish has undergone mutation and spawns now during its first year, which is ecologically abnormal.

“At present the specialists at the Ministry hold consultations on this matter,” says the speaker of the Ministry of Environmental Protection Artsrun Pepanyan. “There is no clear decision yet.”

And before the clear position is identified, Gabrielyan says the scientists expect the most serious treatment in this regard.

“The whole world considers fish a food very rich in proteins and many valuable materials, and therefore its price is high,” says Gabrielyan. “In years of darkness and hunger the sig reserves were plentiful and people survived to some extent owing to it. Today, if we are a bit reasonable, we will have sig as a cheap food after some time again.”